Unlocking the Secrets of the Bestseller

Image of the New York Times Newspaper

by C. K. MacLeod

What are the ingredients of a bestselling novel?

In the book The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers use machine learning and a text-mining tool — the bestseller-ometer — to study the characteristics of the bestselling novel.

What the bestseller-ometer reveals is specific and potentially helpful. Using computers to assess a novel’s bestselling potential raises a number of questions:

  • Will acquisitions editors use algorithms and text-mining tools to determine whether a book is worth investing in?
  • Could indie authors use these tools see if a book will sell?
  • Could editors use it to help writers craft a more marketable book?

I’ll leave it to you to decide. For now, it’s worth thinking about what Archer and Jockers’ research has to say about books that sell brilliantly, and those that don’t.

In a nutshell, The Bestseller Code reveals helpful information about bestseller theme, style, plot, titles and characters, as well as something about the kind of education and training that bestselling authors have.

Archer and Jockers have compiled lists of must-read novels, selected by the bestseller-ometer, that demonstrate bestselling qualities that writers could emulate. If you’re suspicious about a computer’s ability to assess bestselling qualities, you could read the books yourself and arrive at your own conclusions.

While I can’t do justice to Archer and Jockers’ research here, I will say this: some of the writing advice on this blog lines up with the characteristics of bestselling novels:

If it’s your goal to best sell, trying the tips and tools in these articles can’t hurt. At the very least, they’ll help you to see ways to improve your writing. In the wider context, the information in The Bestseller Code is worth considering if your goal is to write a book that people will take time to read — and pay money for.

Image by Charles LeBlanc